'But why Mom? Why?' was the most oft-repeated question of my childhood. In discussing this with the ‘mom’ in question, this was not an effort to dispel uncertainty or assuage anxiety.
It was, as she regales with story after story of learning, an ‘outward expression of insatiable curiosity’ – or, as a colleague has described it: ‘devouring knowledge.’ There was no such thing as, enough workbooks, flashcards, books, lessons, or experiential learning opportunities, and the question could always be changed to consider something from another vantage point. Over time, this curiosity led to outdoor adventures, seeking out seemingly unrelated learning opportunities which eventually revealed their connections, and seeking out the ‘and’ in life. Opportunities became available beyond my wildest dreams with regard to education, including the phenomenal opportunity to learn at Oxford as part of the Executive Diploma in Organisational Leadership – and has led to a role of service – being betwixt and between people of varying educational, socioeconomic groups and diverse backgrounds.
Being betwixt and between, having an appetite for ambiguity, and viewing paradox as potential, has been part of a ‘both/and’ existence throughout years of education and in a career. In these experiences, ambiguity, paradox, being betwixt and between, and networks were highlighted – not to mention instances where one served as an intermediary in networks, acting as an architect, broker, shaman or sense-maker between any two-or-more parties, within, and between networks.
To this point, there are often unknowns on multiple levels.
Historically and often still, leaders use the question of ‘why’ as a means to relay the rationale for a strategic direction or provide context for a leadership decision. They synthesise knowledge at hand in coordination with teams and councils, incorporate input from stakeholders, challenge our views and consider others’ perspectives. By acknowledging that no one has all the answers, we consider unintended consequences, and we move forward. We can never know it all. No one is omniscient, nor omnipotent. Even in retrospect, no single person can know all perspectives or implications of an action. We act, work, and live in the ‘space between,’ as Dave Matthews wrote in the song of the same name.
Module three of the Diploma in Organisational Leadership, entitled ‘The Strategic Leader’, was filled with rich discussion, banter combined with laughter, challenging and invigorating questions, and internal and external exploration. During our time together, and in the intervening days, we individually and collectively examined our appetites for ambiguity and how we manage uncertainty. Oxford Languages defines ambiguity as a noun: ‘the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.’ While no official word count was taken, I suspect the only word used more often than ‘ambiguity,’ was ‘uncertainty,’ which is defined by Oxford Languages as the ‘state of being uncertain’. Many have relished connecting with others who consider paradox as potential, rather than a limitation.
The world has been in a state of ambiguity and uncertainty over the last three years. Personally and professionally, as a radiation oncologist, I am with people as we, together, navigate both ambiguity and uncertainty. I have learned, and share with others, that “I never say never, and never say ‘always.’” Some colleagues may be betwixt and between careers. Ambiguity and uncertainty is complemented by curiosity, seeking new knowledge to answer questions – even those which heretofore have been unanswerable – and some of which may never have a ‘right’ answer. Ethics questions, which may not ever have a ‘right’ answer, may be best approached with the refrain of both the mother (referred to at the start), and with the reflective phrase: ‘it depends’ – as we so often use during our diploma studies. At Oxford, the phrase ‘it depends,’ is followed by the exploration of the culture and context in which the question and options are considered.
Throughout life, in leading others and navigating one’s life, we often serve as human bridges – creating connections between different parties, understanding, translating varying needs and desires, finding common ground and purpose, creating and executing strategic plans with varying roles. We share when we don’t know, trust experts acknowledging we are all incomplete leaders, and still move forward. In class and with our cohort, we asked both, ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’: Why not accept ambiguity and uncertainty as integral components of life and leadership rather than to eliminate ambiguity? Are we trying ‘hard enough’ if nothing is ambiguous? When is it appropriate to mitigate uncertainty, and when is it appropriate to accept ambiguity and uncertainty and aid others in accepting the state of being ‘betwixt and between’? Who would do well to be involved in this delineation? Why do we often try to eliminate or mitigate ambiguity and uncertainty, rather than asking why it is so bothersome to us? And finally; What would be helpful in creating an appetite for ambiguity and viewing paradox as potential rather than problematic? The answers to these questions maybe grappled with and explored in our upcoming fourth module – ‘Building Resilience as a Leader’.
The challenging and invigorating approach to answering questions such as these, results in a sense of camaraderie among our cohort with exploratory conversations unlike anywhere else. Unparalleled teaching and Oxford experiences are relished with each in-person module. Each member of our cohort is held in the highest esteem – with my gratitude and admiration for each person. I am both eager and awaiting module four to see everyone and continue our learning – while lamenting the thought that the programme is nearing a close. For now, I will relish being betwixt and between, savour being both/and, appreciate exploring ambiguity, and delight in paradox being viewed as potential.